CLEVELAND, Tenn. — After sprinting down the court, Cleveland sophomore guard Kley McGowan set his feet in time to draw a charge that gave the ball back to his Blue Raiders during the crucial third quarter of Thursday night's Region 3-AAA championship game against East Hamilton.
McGowan's 22nd charge drawn this season, along with his block in the same quarter, helped Cleveland to its 20th straight victory. If the Blue Raiders stretch their streak to 21, they're headed to Murfreesboro.
Resilient Cleveland (28-4) will try to advance to the Class AAA state tournament for the first time since 2005 when it hosts Blackman (20-11) at 7 tonight in a sectional matchup at Raider Arena. The Blue Raiders are in a sectional for the first time since 2010.
East Hamilton (22-9) will travel to take on Oakland (23-5) at 8 p.m. EST in another AAA sectional with a state berth at stake.
"Our guys have found out how to take their great performances in practice into games," Cleveland coach Jason McCowan said. "Toughness is not beating your chest or how much you lift, it's how you prepare for games. Even though you don't see them on 'SportsCenter,' charges are one of the toughest stats out there."
The guard trio of junior JaCobi Wood (19.5 points per game), sophomore Grant Hurst (17) and senior Isaiah Johnson (15) has paved the way offensively as the Blue Raiders have posted their most wins in a season since 2002-03. All three also average more than two steals per game, and McCowan believes Johnson is the best defender he has coached in 20 years.
"Isaiah and I feed off each other in practice and transfer it to the game, too," said Wood, who averages 5.2 assists per game. "We play as a team and brothers. Our dream is to get to state and make some noise in Murfreesboro."
Mixed in with McGowan's energizing impact on the defensive end and senior Darius Howard's rebounding ability, Cleveland has allowed an average of just 46.2 points per game during its improbable streak of wins.
Even with the dismissal of talented Dionte Ware just after the season began, the Blue Raiders have not lost since Dec. 15. A fast tempo and man-to-man defense have helped them during the streak, when just three opponents have cracked 60 points but McCowan's group has scored more than 85 on five occasions.
Sophomores Hurst and McGowan have shown poise beyond their years this season, including during a win at Bradley Central, where Hurst made his first six 3-point attempts and McGowan drew a half-dozen charges.
Cleveland's coach doesn't expect his players to be intimidated tonight, either.
"I haven't seen anything yet that any moment is too big for this team," McCowan said. "They have learned from great leaders here in the past and formed a mental toughness. They are not scared of anything. We want to stay healthy, lace our shoes up and see who's next."
Bearettes are set
On Sunday, the TSSAA released seeding and brackets for this week's Division I girls' basketball state tournaments at MTSU, and Bradley Central learned its first-round opponent in the eight-team AAA bracket.
The Bearettes (31-3) will face Lebanon (25-10) at 11 a.m. EST Thursday. The winner will take on either Science Hill (31-3) or Oak Ridge (33-2) at 3:45 p.m. EST Friday.